The United States of America was founded in 1776 from British colonies
along the Atlantic Coast of North America. In 1775 frustration with various
British crown practices had led to revolt by colonists in Massachusetts.
The next year, representatives of thirteen of the British colonies in North
America met in Philadelphia and declared their independence in a remarkable
document, the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas
Jefferson. With the help of their French allies they were eventually able
to win the American
against Great Britain, settled by the Treaty of Paris
(1783). Until 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation.
In 1789 the Constitution of the United States was adopted, and George
Washington was elected the first President. Congress passed the first of
many laws organizing the government. Despite a desire on the part of Washington
to remain isolationist, (as detailed in his farewell address), the United
States has a rich diplomatic history.
War of 1812
In 1812, the United states entered a second war with the British Empire,
known as the War
. It was caused in large part by the British policy of Impressment
(the forcible seizure of American seamen for service in the British Royal
Navy)and the British blocking of French seaports where Americans desired
to carry on trade. Though the British held the upper hand in most engagements,
several of the battles entered the American mythos -- including the Battle
of New Orleans (1815), when General Andrew Jackson handed the British one
of the worst defeats in their history. Ironically, the battle was fought
two weeks after the peace Treaty of Ghent, which ended the hostilities,
and restored pre-war conditions.
During the 19th century the country expanded its territory greatly through
two major acquisitions. In 1802, the size of the country doubled with the
Louisiana Purchase, when France sold all of its territories west of the
Mississippi River to the United States. The Lewis and Clark expedition
quickly explored the north western territories from the Mississippi to
the Pacific. The nation's territory continued to expand by the annexation
of Texas, which led to the Mexican-American War, where the United States
obtained territory in the southwest from Mexico. The Oregon territory was
purchased from Great Britain, Alaska from Russia, and the kingdom of Hawaii
was annexed at the end of the century, completing the present territory
of the United States.
Westward expansion by official acts of the United States Government
was accompanied by the western (and northern in the case of New England)
movement of settlers on and beyond The Frontier. Daniel Boone was one frontiersman
who pioneered the settlement of Kentucky. This pattern was followed throughout
the West as men traded with the Indians, trapped fur, and explored. Skilled
fighters and hunters, these Mountain Men in small groups trapped beaver
throughout the Rocky Mountains. After the demise of the Fur Trade they
established trading posts throughout the west, continuing trade with the
Indians, and serving the western migration of settlers to Utah, Oregon
Major events in the western movement of the American people were The
Homestead Act, a law by which, for a nominal price, a settler was given
title to land to farm; the opening of the Northwest Territory to settlement;
The Texas Revolution; the opening of the Oregon Trail; the Mormon Emigration
to Utah in 1846-7; The California gold rush of 1849; the Colorado Gold
Rush of 1859; and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad May 10,
The western movie, one of the classic American film genres, is situated
in this era.
The Civil War
In response to the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, most
of the Southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate
States of America. The American
ensued. U. S. military leadership was mediocre, at first,
compared to that of Confederate generals, particularly Robert E. Lee. But
the Union government managed to invade the Southern states, and defeat
the Confederate army, by means of an overwhelming advantage in materials
and number of soldiers, and the gradual appearance of skilled generals
like Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.
The destructiveness of the Union invasion and defeat of the South, followed
by exploitive economic policies in the defeated region after the war, caused
lasting bitterness among Southerners toward the U.S. government. This failure
of the Federal government to effectively reunite the country contributed
to the government's failure for many decades to enforce the Civil Rights
of the formerly enslaved African-Americans in the South.
The Gilded Age and the Imperial Republic
The end of the 19th century ushered in a period of the expansion of New
Imperialism expansion, pushing the USA on to the World stage:
1893 Queen Liliuokalani deposed by an American coup; leading to the annexation
of Hawaii to USA in 1898.
1898 Spanish-American War the USA gained control of the Spanish colonies
of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
1903 intervention in Colombia to achieve the independence of Panama and
to fetch the zone to build the canal.
American expansionism, of course, had roots in domestic concerns and economics,
as in other newly industrializing nations. The United States was a newly
industrializing nation, like Germany, where investments overall assisted
and accelerated economic progress, aiding the creation of costly infrastructure,
such as railways and other public works. The findings of the 1890 Census,
however, popularized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his paper
entitled ?The Significance of the Frontier in American History?, contributed
to fears of dwindling natural resources . The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing
depression also led some businessmen and politicians to come to the same
conclusion as statesmen such as Leopold II of Belgium, Jules Ferry, Benjamin
Disraeli, Jospeh Chamberlain, and Francesco Crispi had formulated nearly
a generation earlier-? that industry had apparently over-expanded, producing
more goods than domestic consumers could buy.
Like the Long Depression in Europe, which bred doubts regarding growing
of political resistance of world capitalism, the main features of this
depression included deflation, rural decline, and unemployment (indicative
of under-consumption), which aggravated the bitter social protests of the
Gilded Age?- the Populist movement, the free-silver crusade, and violent
labor disputes such as the Pullman Strike. Similarly, the post-1873 in
Europe period saw a reemergence of far more militant working-class organization
and cycles of large strikes. In fact, the rapid turn to imperialism in
the late nineteenth century can be correlated with cyclically spaced economic
depressions that adversely affected many elite groups. Like the Long Depression,
an era of increasing unemployment and deflated prices for manufactured
goods, the Panic of 1893 contributed to fierce competition over markets
in the growing ?spheres of influence? of the United States, which tended
to overlap with Britain?s?especially in the Pacific and South America.
While Germany, the United States, Italy, and other more recently industrialized
empires were under relatively less pressure to offload surplus capital
than Britain, these nations would resort to protectionism and formal empire,
once attacked by adherents to laissez-faire, to usurp Britain?s unfair
advantages on international markets . Some politicians, such as Henry Cabot
Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, advocated a more aggressive
foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression of the second
Grover Cleveland Administration, known for a laissez-faire domestic (and
foreign) policy that in some ways paralleled the policies of the Gladstonian
liberals. By World War I, the rise of US imperialism and militarism, however,
would, in effect, save the Allies, the older, more established, and more
liberal empires, albeit at a huge cost (literally), from the emergent threat
of the absolutist and ?neo-mercantilist? Prussians.
Just as the German Reich reacted to depression with the adoption of
protective tariff protection in 1879 , so would the United States with
the landslide election victory of William McKinley, who had risen to national
prominence six years earlier with the passage of the McKinley Tariff of
1890. Britain?s economic threat from the United States, hence, was (at
the time at least) intensified by America?s rise as a great military and
political power after the Civil War, its adoption of such protective tariff
protection, its acquisition of a colonial empire in 1898, and its building
of a powerful navy?the Great White Fleet?under the slain McKinley?s more
?big stick?, racist, and militarist successor, Theodore Roosevelt. This
course of events, ushered in by the Second Industrial Revolution?paralleled
a similar trend in Germany, which emerged as a potential military power
after its own unification, its adoption of a tariff in 1879, its acquisition
of a colonial empire in 1884-85, and its building of a powerful navy after
1898. On the Pacific, since the Meiji Restoration, Japan?s development
followed a similar pattern, following the Western lead in industrialization
and militarism, enabling it to gain a foothold or ?sphere of influence?
in Qing China. Although US capital investments within the Philippines and
Puerto Rico were relatively small (figures that would seemingly detract
from the broader economic implications on first glance), these colonies
were strategic outposts for expanding trade with Asia, particularly China
and Latin America, enabling the United States to reap the benefit of China?s
?Open Door? and Dollar Diplomacy under Taft?-a sort of US variant of Britain?s
informal colonialism. Such developments, whether in Germany, Japan or in
the United States, hence disseminated fears that formal imperialism was
necessary for Britain because of its relative decline of the British share
of the world?s export trade. Imperialism for the United States, however,
marked by the reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine (formalized by the Roosevelt
Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904), would thus herald the trend
of the United States replacing Britain as the predominant ?investor? in
Latin America?a process largely completed by the end of the Great War.
World War I
During the 20th century the U.S. was involved in two World Wars. Firmly
maintaining neutrality when World
began in 1914, the United States entered the war after the RMS
Lusitania, a British ship carrying many American passengers, was sunk by
German submarines. With American help, Great Britain, France and Italy
won the war, and imposed severe economic penalties on Germany in the Treaty
of Versailles. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's calls for agreeable terms,
the economic impact of the reparations mandated by the Treaty were severe.
The misery they helped produce in Germany helped Adolf Hitler to seize
power in Germany in 1933. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty
of Versailles; instead, the United States signed separate peace treaties
with Germany and her allies.
Disillusioned by the failure of the war to achieve the high ideals promised
by President Woodrow Wilson, the American people chose Isolationism: they
turned their attention inward, away from international relations and solely
toward domestic affairs.
The Roaring 20s
During most of the 1920s the United States enjoyed a period of unbalanced
prosperity: prices for agricultural commodities and wages fell at the end
of the war while new industries (radio, movies, automobiles, and chemicals)
flourished. The unevenness was also geographic: the standard of living
in rural areas fell increasingly behind that of urban and suburban areas
which saw dramatic improvements in housing and urban planning. The boom
was reflected by the extension of credit to a dangerous degree, including
in the Stock Market, which rose to dangerously inflated levels.
In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol was prohibited
by an amendment to the constitution in order to alleviate various social
problems. It was enacted through the Volstead Act. Prohibition ended in
1933 by another change to the constitution; it is considered to have been
a failure by most: consumption of alcohol did not decrease markedly while
organized crime was strengthened. But it did represent the first instance
of a constitutional amendment that directly regulated social activity.
The 18th Amendment, then, represented the growing strength of the state
in the early 20th century.
The Great Depression
The Stock Market crash in 1929 and the ensuing economic depression have
been endlessly debated, often along ideological lines.
A fundamental misdistribution of purchasing power might have been the
Depression?s main contributing factor. As industrial and agricultural production
increased, the proportion of the profits going to farmers, factory workers,
and other potential consumers was far too small to create a market for
goods that they were producing. Even in 1929, after nearly a decade of
economic growth, more than half the families in America lived on the edge
or below the subsistence level?too poor to share in the great consumer
boom of the 1920s, too poor to buy the cars and houses and other goods
the industrial economy was producing, too poor in many cases to buy even
the adequate food and shelter for themselves. As long as corporations had
continue to expand their capital facilities (their factories, warehouses,
heavy equipment, and other investments), the economy had flourished. By
the end of the 1920s, however, capital investments had created more plant
space than could be profitably used, and factories were pouring out more
goods than consumers could purchase.
The nation?s economy had thus been showing some signs of distress for
months before October 1929. Business inventories of all kinds were three
times as large as they had been a year before (an indication that the public
was not buying products as rapidly as in the past); and other signposts
of economic health?freight carloads, industrial production, wholesale prices?were
There was also a serious lack of diversification in the American economy
of the 1920s. Prosperity had been excessively dependent on a few basic
industries, notably construction and automobiles; in the late 1920s, those
industries began to decline. Between 1926 and 1929, expenditures on construction
fell from $11 billion to under $9 billion. Automobile sales began to decline
somewhat later, but in the first nine months of 1929 they declined by more
than one third. Once these two crucial industries began to weaken, there
was not enough strength in other sectors of the economy to take up the
The limited amount of reliable economic information suggests that construction
and housing stagnated after 1926, joining declines in the agriculture,
mining, and petroleum industries. In all of these overproduction dragged
down prices and profits. Wages did not rise fast enough to enable consumers
to purchase all the new homes and home products available. Foreign trade
was constrained by growing protectionism in the industrialized world. The
Stock Market Crash drained away remaining consumer confidence and, more
importantly, the confidence of financial institutions. They were extremely
reluctant to invest. Thus, the economy sank into a severe depression, referred
to by Americans as the "Great Depression", marked by punishing levels of
unemployment, negligible investment, and falling prices and wages.
In response to the depression, Congress and the Hoover administration
enacted a somewhat isolationist Smoot-Hawley tariff and, with its public
works acts, tried to fix prices for farmers, and enacted a public works
program based on the belief that the federal government was obliged to
maintain high employment levels. These efforts were unprecedented, but
the Depression overwhelmed them: indices of prices, profits, production,
and unemployment worsened.
The New Deal
With millions unemployed, political ferment and discontent greatly increased
among the working classes. An unsympathetic or repressive response from
the U.S. government might well have sparked a socialist uprising, but President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, implemented a number of Keynesian
programs to aid the poor and unemployed. These included a variety of make-work
agencies, as well as agencies to improve the functioning of industries.
For example, the Agricultural Adjustment initiated the use of federal subsides
to reduce farm production and drive up prices, relieving the woebegone
agricultural sector. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) granted
significant rights to labor unions and gave the federal government sweeping
regulatory powers. Roosevelt skillfully improved the appeal of these programs
to the American people, by refusing to label them "Socialist", or even
admit that they were. He also contributed to the future stability of the
economy by instituting new regulations in business, particularly banking.
Over the past twenty years, historians have de-emphasized the "revolutionary"
legislation of the Roosevelt administration, seeing instead a logical outgrowth
of the Hoover administration.
The Supreme Court did not look favorably on the New Deal. The NIRA,
for instance, was ruled unconstitutional. Roosevelt responded to this in
1937 by trying to get Congress to increase the size of the Supreme Court
from the long-established number of nine to fifteen. The president would
then appoint six new justices with judicial philosophies favorable to his
previous actions. The scheme found few supporters, and served only to decrease
the president's popularity. Also in 1937, there was a brief but severe
"Roosevelt recession," which decreased economic activity to 1933 levels,
but the economy soon bounced back and continued its recovery. This growth
was slow, until World War II brought a new series of dramatic changes that
again reshaped the economy.
World War II
Isolationist sentiment in America had ebbed, but the United States at first
declined to enter the war, limiting itself to giving supplies and weapons
to Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. American feeling changed
drastically with the sudden Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United
States quickly joined the British-Soviet alliance against Japan, Fascist
Italy, and Nazi Germany, known as the "Axis Alliance". Even with American
participation, it took nearly four more years to defeat Germany and Japan.
Though the Soviet Union suffered far more casualties than its allies, America's
active involvement in the war was vital to preventing an eventual Axis
War II (1941-1945)
Origins of the Cold War
Stalin assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal
rivalry over colonies and trade. Economic advisers such as Eugen Varga
predicted a postwar crisis of overproduction in capitalist countries which
would culminate by 1947-1948 in another great depression.
Trends in federal expenditure in the United States reinforced Stalin?s
expectations. By this time, business had been reinforced by government
expenditures as a consequence of depression and the war. Between 1929 and
1933 unemployment soared from 3 percent of the workforce to 25 percent,
while manufacturing output collapsed by one-third. Franklin Roosevelt?s
New Deal programs tried to stimulate demand and provide work and relief
for the impoverished through increased government spending. The philosophy
behind this was belatedly provided by the British economist John Maynard
Keynes. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt?s
critics charged that he was turning America into a socialist state. But
the cost of the New Deal pales in comparison with World War II. In 1939,
federal expenditure was $9 million; it had increased tenfold by 1945. And
war spending financially cured the depression, pulling unemployment down
from 14 percent in 1940 to less than 2 percent in 1943 as the labor force
grew by ten million. The war economy was not so much a triumph of free
enterprise as the result of government/business sectionalism, of government
What would be the result of massive postwar demilitarization? Industrial
demand, for one, would plummet. Given the trend in federal expenditure,
the looked to be heading toward a precipitous contraction. Stalin thus
assumed that the Americans would need to offer him economic aid, need find
any outlet for massive capital investments just to maintain the wartime
industrial production that brought the US out of the Great Depression.
Thus, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against him seemed slim.
The Cold War and the Vietnam Quagmire
was in many ways a direct successor to the French Indochina War,
fought to maintain control of their colony in Indochina against an independence
movement led by Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh. After the Vietnamese
communist forces, or Viet Minh, defeated the French colonial army at the
Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the colony was granted independence. According
to the ensuing Geneva settlement, Vietnam was partitioned, ostensibly temporarily,
into a communist North and a non-Communist South.
The country was then to be unified under elections that were scheduled
to take place in 1956. However the elections were never held. The RVN government
of President Diem, with the support of US President Eisenhower, cancelled
the elections because they feared that Ho Chi Minh would win.
In response to the failure of establishing unifying elections, the National
Liberation Front (NLF or Viet Cong) was formed as a guerrilla movement
in opposition to the South Vietnamese government.
American involvement in the war was a gradual process. There was never
a formal declaration of war, but in 1964 the U.S. Senate did approve the
of Tonkin Resolution, which gave broad support to President Johnson
to escalate U.S. involvement in the war. By 1968, over 500,000 troops were
stationed there, and the toll of American soldiers killed, as reported
every Thursday on the evening news, was over 100 a week.
The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel"
was shattered, however, in 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge
of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive.
There had been a small movement of opposition to the war within certain
quarters of the United States starting in 1964, especially on certain college
campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student
activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant
"Baby Boomers." World War II ended in 1945, and the Korean conflict ended
in 1953; thus most, if not all, of the "Baby Boomers" had never been exposed
to war. In addition, the Vietnam War was unprecedented for the intensity
of media coverage--it has been called the first television war--as well
as for the stridency of opposition to the war by the so-called "New Left."
Some Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, seeing it as a destructive
war against Vietnamese independence, or as intervention in a foreign civil
war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and
appeared to be unwinnable. Some anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam
Veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his reelection campaign. A member
of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on
an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in
New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting
blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the
President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech
that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of
the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech.
Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race,
Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar
platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination,
promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.
Kennedy was assassinated that summer, and McCarthy was unable to overcome
Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination
of his party, and ran against Richard Nixon in the general election. During
the campaign, Nixon claimed to have a secret plan to end the war.
Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement
from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army
so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone
of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine." As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine
was called "Vietnamization." The goal of Vietnamization was to enable the
South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and
the North Vietnamese Army.
The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under
the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, it came to light that Lt. William Calley,
a platoon Leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians
(including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only
stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage
and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more
civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My
Lai, Calley was given a light sentence after his court-martial in 1970,
and was later pardoned by President Nixon.
Aside from this massacre, millions of Vietnamese died as a consequence
of the Vietnam War. Estimating the number killed in any conflict, however,
is extremely difficult. Official records are hard to find or nonexistent
and many of those killed were literally blasted to pieces by bombing. It
is also difficult to say exactly what counts as a "Vietnam war casualty";
people are still being killed today by unexploded ordinance, particularly
cluster bomblets. Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal
social problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely
caused many more lives to be shortened.
The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced North Vietnamese
statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released
figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants
and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these
figures has generally not been challenged. Around 58,000 US solders also
The casualties inflicted by the US-backed, Khmer Rouge were even higher.
Though adherents to a twisted form of Maoism, the Khmer Rouge were anti-Soviet.
In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy
Viet Cong sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. Many feel that the Khmer
Rouge would probably not have come to power and killed so many (from 900,000
to 2 million) of their people without the destabilization of the war, particularly
of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out the sanctuaries' in Cambodia.
Although Nixon had promised South Vietnam that he would provide military
support to them in the event of a crumbling military situation, Congress
voted down any further funding of military actions in the region. Nixon
was also fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal,
so none of the promised military support to defend the South Vietnamese
government was forthcoming though economic aid continued although most
of the aid was siphoned off by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese
government and little of it actually went to the war effort. The 94th Congress
eventually voted for a total cut off of all aid to take effect at the beginning
of the 1975-76 financial year (July 1, 1975).
The United States unilaterally withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973.
In early 1975 the North invaded the South and quickly consolidated the
country under its control. Saigon was captured on April 30, 1975. North
Vietnam united both North and South Vietnam on July 2, 1976 to form the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in
honor of the former president of North Vietnam.